Berlin from the Eighties till today: Mark Reeder, Furfriend, Nico Deuster of Killekill, the Creamcake collective, Sullivan and the newcomers Metoux, Lord Pusswhip and Jascha Kreft talk about the music scene in the city. What has changed? And: is the city still longing for young creatives?
When Mark Reeder left his hometown Manchester in 1978 to come to legendary West-Berlin, he was attracted by the freedom, the uniqueness, the audacity. However, first and foremost he was coming because of the music. It was the new home of David Bowie, the playground for the first German electronic bands like Tangerine Dream or Edgar Froese. The spirit of the city was different from anywhere else. He didn’t really have a plan, but somehow it worked out pretty well for him. He was working as a mixer, musician, concert organizer, actor, presenter. Mark brought Joy Division for their first and only concert to West-Berlin, smuggled Die Toten Hosen to Communist East Germany and accomodated Nick Cave. The story of his wild life was portrayed in the film “B Movie: Lust & Sound einer Stadt 1979 – 1989”. After the fall of the Berlin Wall the creative scene changed to another direction. Techno conquered the city and so did Reeder’s back then newly founded Trance label MFS. INDIE had the pleasure to talk to this interesting man.
Why did you come to Berlin?
I was inquisitive. Berlin was enigmatic and historical. It had a mystique about it. I didn’t know much about it. It wasn’t known as a musical city though, more of a political flashpoint. However, Edgar Froese and Tangerine Dream were from Berlin and Bowie had recorded Iggy’s The Idiot and Low there, and that album sounded otherworldly. Then it was announced that he’d moved there and recorded Heroes. I was fascinated by this album too, it was like none of his others and it was even more electronic.
In Britain, no one could tell me anything about Berlin. Most people even had no idea it was far in the East of Germany and imagined it was slap in the middle of the dividing borderline between East and West Germany. I certainly had never met anyone who had ever been there. All I knew was that the war had ended there, that it was walled in and that Rudolf Hess was imprisoned there and it was the focal point of the cold war, but other than that, nothing. The only Berlin I knew was from books and the one I had seen in war films, cold-war spy thrillers and Cabaret. In the 70s, I travelled around West-Germany, but when I asked people about Berlin, they were generally quite dismissive. This fueled my curiosity even more. A few hippy students once told me you could escape national service in the German army if you lived in Berlin. I didn’t really understand what that actually meant. Berlin was deep inside the Eastern Block, which was unknown territory and by all accounts, it took ages to get there, so tourists simply didn’t go, but if Bowie was influenced by the city and this was reflected in his music, then it must have something. I thought, if people don’t usually go there, perhaps I might find record shops crammed with old, rare and unknown electronic krautrock records.
What was your first impression when you arrived? Do you have a certain formative memory?
My first thought was that it reminded me of Manchester. I arrived on a drizzly night. Somehow, I felt instantly at home, although I had never been there before. Everything seemed so familiar. It was thrilling to be in Berlin. My first encounter with a Berliner was early the next day, after my arrival. I needed some small-change to make a telephone call and I walked into a small kneipe at the end of the street, the Winterfeldstrasse. A few elderly patrons were sitting about drinking schnapps, this was about nine in the morning. The barmaid was bent over, stocking the fridges. I enquired in my best Germanese if she spoke English, she turned and stood up. Then I saw it was a six foot transvestite in a yellow polka-dot top, with wild bright orange hair and horrorshow make up. She leaned on the bar and purred deeply in a broad Berlin dialect “jaaaa, schaeztschen wat willste?” For a moment, I was totally awed and completely taken aback but realized, this is Berlin. This is normality. I guess it was just as I had imagined it. I thought “wow! this is Berlin, I am here”.
What was the biggest difference between Manchester’s and West Berlin’s music scene?
Probably the main difference between Manchester and West-Berlin was the fact that in Manchester, you played in the hope of some sort of success and that you might one day be able to make a living from it, or even escape, as Manchester back then was a pretty desperate place with a very high unemployment rate, so most people spent their dole money on instruments. Musically, everything was properly organized. To a degree, you had to be a fairly proficient musician to succeed. The music industry in the UK was exactly that, an industry, and once you entered, you discovered it had rules and regulations and a hierarchy. It was geared towards commercial success and music was made with that aim in mind. It was part of the export industry.
Berlin was totally different. First of all, the majority of musicians who lived in West-Berlin had already escaped… to West-Berlin and so people simply played to express themselves. No one gave a fuck about commercial success. It wasn’t the most important factor. Artistic expression was. Even back then, Berlin was very open-minded and freedom of expression ruled. You could basically get away with anything. We made music that was noisy, unconventional or avant-garde and we dressed up in whatever expressive garb made us feel comfortable. Those of us who had washed up here, were in some way, a bit like refugees. We were certainly all outcasts from society and we made sure people knew it. You weren’t condemned for just having a go. The fear of fucking up didn’t really exist, because there was no social media outlet like today. Club owners would even let you play just because you had an interesting idea, not because you were a good musician or well connected. It was the thrill of artistic experimentation which made people creative and the audiences would lap it up because it was so wild, crazy and totally different.
How could one imagine West Berlin’s vibe back in the days?
Well, in the circles I inhabited, quite anarchic. No one gave a fuck. You could do whatever you liked and be whoever you wanted to be. Berlin gave you the freedom to discover yourself, because you didn’t have to hide. Everything was acceptable. We could all be a bit nutty in a sense because we didn’t adhere to any rules. You had to look pretty radical to be considered weird or be seen as strange in West-Berlin. Visually, the city was and still is, very seasonal. In the winter we all froze in our crappy coal oven-heated apartments, mostly, because it was a chore to buy 20kg of coal and lug it upstairs, so most of our time was spent in bars, cafés and clubs where it was warm. Then the city stank of coal fumes in winter too, it was a derelict city and looked pretty grey and dismal, especially at night, with it’s jack-the-ripper gas lanterns. I loved it. The spring brought with it hope and the promise of good weather. The city looks lovely in spring. Summer meant open air events and outside cafés. The packed live venues would be dripping with sweat all year round. Back then you could smoke everywhere too, so clubs and bars were always very smoky and all venues sold beer in cans too, which were used as ammunition to be thrown at any band that was considered to be sheer rubbish. This was more of a fun thing, than real hostility. At the end of the gigs, I remember the sound of hundreds of crunching cans, as the audience trawled out.
When did you realize that you really want to stay in Berlin?
Almost immediately. The moment I returned from my first visit to East-Berlin (at that point I had only been in Berlin for two days).
What was the first concert you’ve went to in Berlin?
I honestly can’t remember. It could’ve been P1/E or Geile Tiere or a band from the UK even. I don’t know. I went to lots of venues and a varied selection of bars, clubs and discos in the hope of meeting someone who would point me in the direction of something interesting. I had the pleasure of visiting the drug infested SOUND discotheque near Nollendorfplatz, which was exactly like in the movie Christiane F, or Superfly on Adenauerplatz, or even the tranny bar Lutzower Lampe, before finally finding more punkier venues like SO36, Kant Kino or later Exxcess.
In general, when you wanted to listen to good music where did you go?
Mainly to record shops. They were always the best places to get information anyway. As for gigs, I went to places like SO36 and Exxcess and anywhere that was offering a promising performance. As for clubs, I went to many, places such as Tschungel, Mink, Safe Sex, Intensiv Station, DNC and every weekend, The Metropol and more often than not, I ended up in Risiko.
What was the night life like back in the 80s?
Smoky, wild, excessive and unbridled, I guess quite a bit like today but with more unconventional music and different drugs. Cocaine was virtually non-existent, because it was very expensive (about 500DM a gram) and no one I knew could afford it. Most people smoked or took LSD and Speed because it was quite cheap and if you fell into its trap, Heroin too. MJ & Hashish were probably the most popular and Heroin became easily available thanks to the boys of the Soviet Army’s Camping Afghanistan. As our so-called scene was quite small, you always met the same people around town. I always had my self-baked hash biscuits and so don’t think I ever paid for a drink, at least i would always end up with a drink in my hand, in fact come to think of it, the others didn’t either. I remember one night after playing a gig with Malaria! in SO36, the girls wanted to go to Exil in Kreuzberg for a after-gig drink. Our singer, Alistair and our mate Dave Rimmer thought all the drinks were for free and kept ordering bottle after bottle of champagne. When by chance, they discovered the drinks were not provided for, they hastily slipped out unnoticed, leaving the girls to discuss at the end who would foot their hefty bill. The girls claimed they didn’t know the two English freeloaders and they got away with it. That’s probably why many bars went bust. We got fucked up virtually every night. On a typical night out, I would usually start my evening with a Reeder’s Digestive Biscuit and then have a few drinks in Leydicke’s just to warm up and then move up the gears with whatever was on offer, then on to a gig, and then to a bar or club, then another bar or club, then … errr… fuck knows…
When you came here, how did you get in contact with the music scene?
I went to record shops and asked around. Eventually someone would say, have you tried this club, or do you know that place?
Was it hard to catch up with the scene as an English expat?
No not really, I was one of a handful of Brits here and after a while we all knew each other as we were all looking for basically the same thing. The scene was so small anyway, it was easy to find your way around after a short while.
You’ve met so many incredibly creative people in the 80s – was there a certain musician that particularly influenced you in your work?
Well no not really, at least not many of those I met. I admired them for sure and I’m very proud to know them and pleased for them that they managed to make it. I was never really so ambitious. I didn’t play music to escape to a desert island, because I had already escaped and found my desert island in West-Berlin. I made music to the best of my ability – I am, by a long shot, no virtuoso. I did what I could and as far as I’ve been told, it ended up sounding a bit like my mates from Joy Division, who also did what they could, although they were a little bit better. I was also really into electronic disco music and that proved much more difficult to make. With my band Die Unbekannten we wanted to make electronic disco too, but we neither had the right kind of equipment or knowledge, it ended up sounding just depressive. I have had a lot of different influences over the decades, from artists like The Beatles, to Kraftwerk, Bowie, TG, Klaus Schulze or Giorgio Moroder, or Francois Kevorkian, Larry Levan and Shep Pettibone, but also Jimi Hendrix, Bernard Herrmann, Morricone, as well as The Buzzcocks, or The Stooges and many others. All have made a lasting impression upon me.
Did you ever have the feeling to be part of an underground movement? Or was being member of a subculture almost normal in West Berlin?
It was all very normal for us, but we knew we didn’t represent the so-called norm. Being in Berlin, I had immersed myself in it, so it never occurred to me that I was a part of any kind of movement until I made The Tube – Berlin Special TV programme. Then I realized that I was living in another world.
How did the scene function?
Ha, it didn’t. Mostly, ideas would be thought up under the influence of alc or some other substance and then if we could remember we had discussed the next day, plans were put into action. Then, if it was say, a gig or event of some kind, you would get asked if you wanted to partake.
You’ve said that your own music was really shitty in the beginning, like when you’ve played in your band „Die Unbekannten“. However you’ve been quite successful with that – how do you explain that? Do you think that would still be possible nowadays?
Die Unbekannten successful? That’s a laugh. I wish. It’s perhaps, because people’s perceptions towards 80s music have changed, that our music is now seen as something else and accepted. Back in the 80s we fell between the cracks, because we were too unprofessional and indie sounding to be considered commercial and to poppy to be avant-garde, but I guess because we were funny and pretty chaotic live and our gigs were always a bit of a shambles, so we became an accepted part of the geniale dilletanten scene.
Sometimes I have the feeling that people of my age kind of glamorize the glorious West Berlin with its infamous scene – there must have been some negative aspects!?
Yes of course, on a personal level I’m sure there were loads. It wasn’t all fun, but you don’t really dwell on the negatives as they are happening. Hard drug addiction became a big problem. Most people lived on a diet of drugs and alcohol. Even mundane things like the shops shutting at 6pm and at 2pm on Saturdays, made life difficult, especially for the night owls. We had almost no luxuries apart from a TV, we had coal ovens in most flats, which gave out minimal heat in the winter and stank of coal dust fumes in the summer and having to share a toilet with your neighbour was also no treat. But if things got rough or boring, I always had East-Berlin as my refuge. It was never boring over there.
Do you sometimes miss West-Berlin? Would you like to relive the 80s?
No not really. I miss a few things about that time obviously, especially the thrill of crossing the border into the GDR and smuggling something highly illegal or doing something naughty there, but I am not nostalgic and I prefer to look towards the future.
How was your relation to the German Democratic Republic (Communist East Germany)?
Being a fan or George Orwell’s 1984, I loved it. From the very first moment I was enthralled. It was a real, living version of the Orwellian nightmare. It was like travelling back in time to a parallel world. There were practically no adverts, only those for a forthcoming Free German Youth event, or proclamations declaring such absurdities as solidarity with their Klassenbruder the Soviet Union or forward towards the next party congress. Ok, the food was very poor but I loved sitting in their cafes drinking esatzkaffe. There was a certain quaintness to the GDR that fascinated me. Once I made friends over there, I was introduced to the East German alternative music scene, but I always had a very interesting time over there, even if it was just as simple as going shopping for records or agitation & propaganda materials like a bust of Lenin. I met some fantastic people, all living on the edge of this so-called socialist society, trying their best to resist. All they really wanted to do was to be able to buy and listen to the music I could. Being a Punk in East Germany was to be very daring indeed, as punk didn’t officially exist. I discovered this was a much more serious affair than being a punk in the West. You could be a punk in the West and no one really cared. It was accepted and tolerated. But being a Punk in the East was much more dangerous. You were considered a Staatsfeind – an enemy of the state. The East German authorities were worried, because punk was something that couldn’t be controlled, that didn’t want to be controlled, and that terrified them.
So it put everyone under surveillance. It was as if their leaders treated the population like little children. Forbidding almost everything and what wasn’t forbidden was controlled, especially the arts. I took it upon myself to help my friends over there obtain the music that I liked and they wanted. So I smuggled. Crossing the border was so thrilling and very scary at the same time. After the first time I smuggled something illegal into East Berlin, I became addicted, addicted to the adrenaline rush. I was entering real-life enemy territory and if I was caught in this unknown world, anything could happen and no one would ever know. Often I believed I might end up in a Siberian Salt-mine one day, especially after helping to organize the first concert in the East by Die Toten Hosen. What I didn’t know was that I was under the scrutiny of the STASI and my safety and freedom of movement was actually ensured, as they wanted to know who I knew and who I was going to meet and intrigued as to what my agenda was. So much so, they finally invited me into the GDR to produce an album, Torture by East German “indie” band Die Vision. As it turned out, it would be the last album of the GDR. In retrospect, I feel very privileged, as I was able to experience both worlds.
How did Berlin’s music scene change since then? What did change after the fall of the Berlin wall in regard of the music?
Everything. The Berlin music scene became dominated by techno and house. Without the fall of the Berlin wall there would have been no techno scene as we know it. After the collapse of communism, the small fledgling techno scene was able to spread and expand. The fall of the wall opened the floodgates for all those Eastie kids dying to dance to a new tune, one that promised to open their minds and free them from the restrictions of the past. Techno was perfect, as it was modern, groovy, hard and had no difficult-to-understand lyrics, and it was the first time they had been able to choose what they wanted to listen to since the end of the Weimar Republic. They chose techno.
You’re a pioneer in the field of electronic music – why do you think was (and still is) this genre so popular in Berlin? What’s the connection between the city and that kind of music?
This is where Techno became a musical trend. Possibly, the last trend of the 20th century and the first of the 21st. Techno was the club sound of the future and as it develops further it still is in some ways. Apart from that, Berlin still has so many unexplored locations just waiting to be turned into a club or venue and it already offers an uninhibited clubbing experience. As for electronic music, the creativity you can unleash within the genre of electronic music is absolutely limitless. In my opinion, the brilliant programmers behind the modern music making computer software are the real pioneers of today. They are the ones who make it all possible. Their companies are in Berlin, because Berlin is Techno-Mecca. Sure, musicians have to be creative too and be constantly out there pushing the boundaries with it.
What do you think of today’s electronic music scene?
I think it is quite exciting. I was recently at a music school giving a talk and saw what the students there were doing. It was very impressive indeed. Although, they just have to remember it’s ok to make mistakes. We no longer have just one kind of techno music. The genres of what can be considered electronic have been blurred. You have 80s retro-modern sounding electronic and experimental avant-garde electronic, as well as club driven electronics and all kinds of mixtures in between. People consume music differently today and as artists they are obviously inspired by this eclectic mixture which fuses two or three totally different styles of music together to make something new. Combine that with new computer software and retro synths and a daring artist and we have fascinating times ahead.
What do you listen to when you’re at home?
All kinds of stuff from underground, to pop, to old school and even rock, but also 80s and avant- garde and lots of film music… oh and even k-pop! (which my wife subjects me to)
Do you think Berlin still is an attractive city for young musicians? Would you move here again under the current circumstances?
Yes, of course, absolutely! For me, Berlin is like paradise. For certain, it is still much cheaper and affordable when compared to other major cities. It’s still a cool, relaxed and open minded city and you can get everything you need to make life a pleasant experience, besides, you can drink the water straight from the tap! now THAT is a luxury we all take for granted. In reality, Berlin still attracts the same kind of people as before and it is also a great platform for all kinds of modern, creative industries too not just music and nightlife.
Are there certain musicians from Berlin we should have an eye on?
Some of the Berlin bands and musicians that have recently caught my eye are Liste Noir, Jesus Sahara, Dear Strange, Lone Taxidermist and dj Ron Wilson, but there are so many more out there making great music (I just can’t remember all their names), I’m very sure of that there’s plenty of new talent coming to Berlin too. We just have to be open minded.
Your message to Berlin:
The thing that makes Berlin so very special is its open mindedness. We have freedom of thought and expression here unlike anywhere else. We have created this lifestyle for ourselves and made Berlin one of the World’s most attractive cities. It is essential that we maintain it, even if we have to strive very hard. So don’t let anyone take this away from Berlin, because it is what made you come here in the first place. Just remember, you have got to fight for your right, to party!
By Marieke Fischer